RAFI-USA Executive Director Edna Rodriguez has been a key player on RAFI-USA’s team for a decade. Starting as the organization’s grants officer, she quickly progressed to become development director, operations director, and now executive director. Edna’s leadership has been instrumental in moving the organization forward while always staying a few steps ahead of external circumstances and trends, making for a responsive and agile organization. In this Q&A with Beth Hauptle, RAFI-USA’s communications manager, Edna shares a bit about her background and how she got to RAFI-USA, what organizational shifts have come about during her tenure, and her passion for tackling the issues that RAFI-USA faces on a daily basis.
BH: Tell us a little about your early life.
ER: I was born in Puerto Rico, because my parents were studying there at the time, but they’re from the Dominican Republic. When I was in elementary school, my father’s job transferred him to the Netherlands for a couple of years and then he was transferred there again when I was in high school, so I completed my last three years of high school in Holland at an American school. After high school, I decided to go to college outside of Philadelphia, Haverford College, a Quaker school. If you know the Quaker tradition, they have a long history of social justice and peace work. I think I acquired a lot of my social justice lens there. So I majored in economics, but really focused on poverty and gender more than anything.
BH: What were your early positions in the nonprofit sector like?
ER: My first job out of school was in Washington, DC at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy doing research on foundation funding of civil rights organizations. After DC, I moved to Atlanta where I worked at the Latin American Association and later the Atlanta Women’s Foundation.
After my father passed away, I decided to move back home. I looked for a job with an international NGO in the Dominican Republic but found that recruitment and hiring for the positions I was interested in primarily happened outside the country. International organizations don’t typically recruit locally for leadership positions, and when they do, local staff are paid far less and receive fewer benefits than their foreign colleagues, even when they do similar work and have similar qualifications. It’s not that different from what you see in multinationals with operations in the country. It’s a painful reminder that with foreigners holding the power and the money, the neo-colonialist legacy continues.
BH: How did you end up at RAFI-USA?
ER: After moving to Chapel Hill, I started looking for a job and came across a grant writing position at RAFI-USA. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think agriculture would be a good fit for me, but within the first few months, I realized that food justice work combines a lot of issues that I’m already passionate about, like economic justice, the environment, the right for the little person to be able to make a living — whether it’s a farmer or a small business person. The corporate power piece of RAFI’s work has always been a big pull for me, in part because of my own experience growing up in a country with a legacy of colonialism. I was also attracted to the organization’s commitment to social justice, and in particular how the organization lived up to this commitment through its progressive employee policies and benefits.
BH: So when you arrived at RAFI-USA, what was going on at the time?
ER: When I started at RAFI in 2012, the organization was dealing with what had been a pretty difficult farm bill process. The following year, we continued our focus on the farm bill and also started working on a landowner rights campaign when North Carolina was considering bringing fracking to the state. Our farm advocacy program was busy helping farmers in crisis, including a lot of poultry farmers locally who had lost their contracts, and we continued to run a grants program for farmers. We were also busy planning the 2013 Come to the Table Food and Faith regional conferences in North Carolina.
Many foundations were reconsidering their funding priorities and strategies, probably in response to the 2008-2009 recession. We witnessed a progressive shift in foundation funding, with many funders moving away from awarding general support grants and instead making program support grants, which came with more restrictions. For us this meant losing the bulk of the general support grants we had always counted on. With fewer unrestricted dollars available to cover operations we were eventually forced to downsize our administrative staff, which was a challenge for us.
BH: How did the organization address the challenge of decreased administrative staff?
ER: We focused on putting systems in place that allowed us to get the work done more efficiently. Most importantly, we asked our program staff to step up and help us through the transition — and they did. I’m not sure we would have gotten through it all without program staffing stepping up like they did. It was definitely not an easy time and it was a considerable amount of work, but we got through it and I think we are better for it. Interestingly, during this time, we also had great success in securing new multi-year program grants. So while we worked to figure out how to function with a smaller administrative staff, we were also quite busy expanding our programs into new directions including the Double Bucks program and the Farmers of Color Network.
BH: Can you talk about how the Farmers of Color Network program was started?
ER: A few years ago, there were some people who wanted us to put the Agricultural Reinvestment Grants program to rest after some farmers complained that the grants gave other farmers an unfair competitive edge. Tahz Walker [now the Farmers of Color Network senior program manager] and I felt that the program hadn’t entirely run its course, because it had only served one to (tops) two farmers of color each year. And we thought that there may be farmers of color out there who were simply not applying for the program. Maybe they applied once, got rejected and never bothered to try again; or they never bothered applying assuming it would be unfair to them like everything else. So we said, what if we take a different approach and have people of color doing personalized outreach and offering technical assistance on grant applications when needed. So we gave it a shot and we were overwhelmingly effective in getting many more promising grant applications from farmers of color. We went from two grants awarded to farmers of color in one year to almost half of 22 or so grants awarded to farmers of color the following year. That’s essentially how we kickstarted the Farmers of Color Network.
[NOTE: Since the ARF grants ended in 2019, RAFI-USA has re-granted nearly half a million dollars through its Farmers of Color Network infrastructure fund. This project is supported in part by a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as funding from the 11th Hour Project, Seeds, Soul and Culture Fund/New Field Foundation and a grant from an anonymous donor-advised fund at The Chicago Community Foundation.]
BH: So in addition to the shift of funding more farmers of color, what have been some other organizational shifts?
ER: We have moved towards more collaboration across programs. It used to be that the programs were stand-alones with one person in charge, and they did their own work without necessarily coordinating a whole lot with the rest of the programs. So you didn’t have this overlap like you have now with Come to the Table working with Farmers of Color Network to establish CSA’s at churches. Or, the Seed Stewards working with the Farmers of Color Network. Now, the Come to the Table people are thinking about planting pollinators at churches. That kind of crossover was not happening. And so that’s changed dramatically.
BH: How about the focus on corporate control of livestock and poultry operations?
ER: The organization spent decades working on fair contracts for poultry growers, but that approach was unfortunately not as effective as we hoped. There’s so much more that is wrong and unfair with this system, beyond the contract itself. So, in recent years we’ve shifted from a focus on contracts to advocating for reforming policy and regulations. We also produced the film “Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print” to help tell the stories of how these farmers are harmed by corporations. We put a lot of effort into showing what the farmers’ experience is really like and that the companies control the whole thing and are the ones that profit, not the farmers.
BH: How did the pandemic impact RAFI-USA and ongoing work in 2020?
ER: We were fortunate that our foundation funders gave us the flexibility to either lift the restrictions so that we could use money as we saw fit or remove the reporting requirements, which was helpful as well. So that allowed us to move more money into re-granting than we would otherwise have been able to if we had to adhere to program budgets.
We provided grants pretty quickly, both for the Farmers of Color Network, and then also through our Farm Advocacy program for emergency grants. We also awarded grants through the Come to the Table program because we already had existing relationships with many churches. All of these grants were in support of local and regional farms.
The COVID-19 pandemic also gave us an opportunity to highlight a lot of the issues within the food/ag sector, including the worker perspective, which was new to us. For years our work around livestock was primarily focused on the experience and exploitation of the farmers, while mostly ignoring the worker piece. The pandemic shifted this for us.
BH: It seems as if the board has had to be pretty flexible and agile as well. Can you talk about how the board of directors has changed over the years?
ER: Well, the board has shifted dramatically over the last five years, and the board that we have now is extremely supportive of the direction that we’re taking. The board is also now primarily people of color, where it used to be primarily white. So that’s been a significant shift over the last 10 years that I’ve been at the organization.
BH: What keeps you up at night?
ER: I think what scares me the most is the disappearance of small businesses and small farms. Corporate-friendly public policy and a lack of regulation are systematically putting big business, large corporations ahead. And the amount of money that corporations are pouring into politics to influence policy is even scarier. If you look at other sectors, outside of agriculture, the same thing is happening; it’s increasingly hard to survive as a small enterprise.
The increase in misinformation in recent years and the amazing power it has over people is another one. It is terrifying to see the harm misinformation can do and how difficult it is for so many people to discern between what is reliable information and what is not.
And then of course climate change …
BH: Some say small farms can’t feed the world. What do you say?
ER: In some ways the reason that we can’t feed the world right now is because we’ve destroyed so many local economies and put so many small farmers out of business. Like NAFTA — what that did to Mexican farmers. Thousands and thousands of farmers went out of business. And the price manipulation and trading practices, and the impact of that. Anyhow, it still goes back to the same thing that I was talking about before. The idea that a few companies, a few entities, should be able and responsible and have the power to distribute and control resources. I don’t think this is the only way for us to feed people. I think local communities are perfectly capable of doing that on their own. But if we keep breaking all the infrastructure that makes it possible for people to do that, then what can we expect?
BH: You’ve got so much going on. What do you do to relax?
ER: I like to bake and cook, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in my garden. Last year during the pandemic, that was one of the things that really helped. And then I do have three kids and a husband, so that keeps me pretty damn busy.
BH: And, the future?
ER: Looking into the future, I would love to figure out a way to stay in this movement, but be focused on the Caribbean region. Have my path eventually lead back to where I came from, but not just yet.